Tag Archives: Critics

The prophet Elijah got me published

ACADEMIC PROPHECY ‘Elijah reviving the Son of the Widow of Zarephath’ by Louis Hersent.

A Writer’s narrow escape.

BY the time I got to Sydney University to start my arts degree I was so sick and tired of essays, studying, research, and examinations, that I pretty-much floated my way through the whole year.

I was thrust into large, anonymous lecture halls, where everyone else seemed to be getting the jokes, was cooler, better connected, more studious, more artful and more alive than I was.

So I spent a lot of my time skulking around, mainly in the Fisher Library, reading titles that were not on my reading lists (actors’ biographies, mainly) and going to the movies in the city during the afternoon.

My results reflected this malaise, but even then I didn’t care. Years of academic competition at school had rendered any desire for tertiary achievement completely impotent.

I lived on campus in an all-male college, which was a total shock to the system. Escaping the ritual humiliation inflicted on new students was not actually very difficult – the older students doing the shaming really only wanted willing participants in their ridiculous ceremonies anyway. I would hide out in the cafeteria of the neighbouring hospital.

In terms of essay writing, I learnt very quickly how emotion and opinion were to be stripped-away. This made academic sense but put my enjoyment levels into the negative. I recall using the term ‘pure art’ in a Fine Arts paper, only to have it red-penned with great question marks. I couldn’t see why, if all the professors and tutors were having so much fun, that the words on the page had to be so damned boring.

In Ancient History I excelled, but only by default. Our chaplain had been the Ancient History teacher at school, so we had studied minimal Greece and even less Rome, but instead we’d gone through the history of ancient Israel in enormous detail.

The Old Testament of The Bible had come alive in those classes, not in an overtly religious sense, but as documentary evidence of societies long gone. This working knowledge of texts that have become so influential to modern thinking would prove invaluable in years to come, particularly as I joined one of the groups sidelined by the Levitical laws.

So it was a case of laziness when I selected an essay topic right in my field of knowledge – to examine another scholar’s views on the prophet Elijah. I can recall neither the scholar nor his views, but I brought the prophet himself as alive as I could, using neither emotion nor opinion. The trick was quoting far and wide, from dialogues full of religious fervour and belief, to soundly trounce my academic colleague for his lack of imagination.

In hindsight, the effectiveness of my argument was undoubtedly the way I suggested that in ancient Israel, blind faith conquered rational thought each and every time. I probably also felt that in three thousand years, not much had changed.

Prophets were always more three-dimensional than other biblical figures. They were cantankerous, usually because they worked hard at day jobs and resented the holy spirit taking them away from the basics of regular life. And they were funny – some of the only classic humour in the old testament appears in Elijah’s challenge to the high priests of Ba’al, when he heckles them into throwing more sacrifices onto their altars, shouting ‘Where is your God? Where is your God?’

Juxtaposition is everything, even in academic writing it seemed. For my word tricks, I got a high distinction, and an invitation to my Professor’s office one afternoon.

The thought that I’d been caught-out as a complete fraud did occur to me, but as I sat down in this man’s office, after he’d cleared a chair for me from underneath the layers of dusty papers and books, and looked at me through his thick glasses, blinking in the half-light, he said: “And what are you going to do with this high distinction?”, before blinking again and expecting me to speak.

HALLOWED HALLS The very English Quadrangle of Sydney University.

Nothing crossed my mind, except what a strange question it was. “Do better next time…?” I muttered.

“No!” the Professor boomed, banging his hand Elijah-like onto the desk.

“You’re going to do honours, and I shall help you. First, we are going to publish this paper of yours.”

Being published sounded like fun, and in due course, my fervour-filled evocation of the prophet took its place in the front of that year’s edition of Edubba, the Ancient History and Classics Department’s undergraduate journal.

Becoming an acolyte of this professor did not sound like any fun at all. Any chance of his fervent prophecy about me coming to pass was all the fuel I needed to get out of university by applying to drama school.

I completed my final exams, including one in which I answered questions about Roman writers whom I had read not one word of. I passed, miraculously, and waited for my escape plan to come to fruition.

That one essay is all I have left of my sole university year – I don’t have a copy, but it will be there in the Fisher Library somewhere, testament to my ability in writing to a prescribed, academic formula, but with a fine flame of life burning within.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The Grim Reaper in the lunch room

PRINTING IMPRESSED A romantic vision of my first day job at a printing firm.

A Writer’s first day job.

IN my last year of school, I was gently encouraged into some kind of employment. Having illustrated a local history book, I had a contact in the manager of a local printing firm.

After writing to him reminding him of my illustrations, he called and offered me a job.

My mental picture of working on a printing floor was rather romantic. Perhaps there would be intelligent people, poring over inks, print quality and words; contact with working writers and artists; and great pieces of literature on the brink of being born?

I worked out how to get to and from work on the local bus, arrived at the agreed time, and entered the workforce with an enthusiastic handshake and an introduction to my first task.

Remember those notebooks we used when people actually wrote things by hand, the kind with the red gum strip holding all the pages together? Whoever knew that they were gummed in one stack and had to be separated by hand?

Well I did, by the end of that first day, after separating a stack taller than me (I was then and still am 6’2”), into note pads of the same thickness.

Being at the back of the print floor, as I worked I had a view of the rest of the staff. Apart from the boss, who spent most of his time on the phone or working as his own receptionist at the front counter, there was a kind lady typesetting in a small glassed-in office, sitting at an enormous blue metal machine, out of the side of which a continuous flow of type would emerge.

There were two printing presses near me, operated by polite men, one of whom dressed in a neat, ink-stained lab coat, and the other who reminded me of Rod Stewart, had he ever embarked on a career in offset printing. Then there was the man whom I was to spend the most time with and learn the most from – the layout artist. We’ll call him Terry.

“His unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry.”

At that time, Terry would have been in his fifties. A great teacher, he took me under his wing and showed me everything he knew, from setting type, to creating photographic or illustrative bromides to be set onto each aluminium plate, which he’d create in lightening speed for every job.

A business card he could dash off in about five minutes. A booklet in about an hour.

It was Terry who called time on morning tea and lunch, with a kindly manner which set the tone of the whole establishment. He spied that I’d committed myself to gummed notebook duties without fuss, and each time the boss would put me on an old collating machine, or packaging duties, Terry would ensure I’d get to learn something new before I’d collated or packed my brain into oblivion.

For a young writer-illustrator, this workplace was an immediate introduction to the nitty-gritty of publishing. I got to do a decent amount of creative work – dusting off little images for business cards and corporate documents. I got to edit a small magazine because there was no-one else to do it, in fact the boss landed the job on the basis of having someone around who had innate editing skills.

My five dollars an hour was money that I saw increasing in my bank account weekly, as I’d take my cheque up to the bank every friday afternoon before heading home.

For a day or two I fanstasised that this was a career choice for me – that somewhere, someplace, a writer-artist-editor could stick around a printing floor doing odd jobs and creating bits and pieces, for money. It was a vain hope. I always have plenty of those hanging around.

UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace (Image unknown, but in the pubic domain).
UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace.

What burst my bubble was not the limited creative prospects that I laid-out for myself, but the workplace reality of coming face-to-face with other peoples’ opinions.

I was from a very sheltered community (independent schools tend to create those) nothing about which really prepared me for some of the stuff that came out in the lunch room.

The most sudden example was the ‘AIDS is happening because God Hates Gays’ booklet, complete with the Grim Reaper on the cover, which Terry slid across the table to me, in front of everyone, saying: “You should read this.”

I was cornered, managing to not open it, but also not wanting to signal any kind of negative response. It was a nasty little polemic, but the paper quality was good – Terry had taught me how to gauge such things.

Later, while collating the latest golf club members’ booklet, Terry made a general observation to me that it was women who were better at such mundane tasks as collating and notepad separating, before pointedly not asking me into his company that afternoon to learn more about plate-making.

It took me a while to understand these blatant messages, because I was just so naive.

When University Orientation Week hit my diary, I decided to leave the job that had, for a short time, given me pleasure.

The boss and his wife were very kind in giving me a lovely set of graphic design pens as a send off. Mum noticed that I’d resigned a good week before Uni started, but I was incapable of explaining why.

None of my adult colleagues had enough spine to tell Terry to keep his opinions to himself, especially in front of an impressionable teenager. They were keeping the peace, I suppose. I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to leave.

That’s the thing about day jobs – they’re easy to let go of when there is very little of your ego invested.

It might seem fitting of me to say that Terry taught me some kind of important lesson, but his unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry. He taught me that not all words are beautiful.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A massacre and Katherine Mansfield

MASSACRE ILLUSTRATED An engraving of the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre of Aboriginal people at the hands of settlers (Image from ‘The Chronicles of Crime’ 1841).

A Writer’s first critic.

I WAS born at Inverell, New South Wales, the second child of a city girl and a farmer, one of the last generations to marry under that great misguided matchmaking code.

We lived on a farm called “Paxton”, on Dufty’s Lane, off the Bingara Road west of Inverell in the New England region. My mum recalled a tree growing in the main bedroom of the long empty farmhouse. She shed a tear years later when watching We of the Never Never (the 1982 film based on the memoirs of Jeannie Gunn), especially the montage where Jeannie makes-over the derelict homestead.

“Prejudice is dangerous to write about.”

My brother and I went to Delungra Public School. Mum remembered the day when we came home talking about how the two Aboriginal children in our class were supposedly ‘different’. I cannot remember who’d pointed it out (it was not one of the teachers), but it proves that racism is not born, it is learned.

Mum dealt with the potential for us to develop certain prejudices by highlighting how other people thought the kids of the man who cleared the ‘dunny’ (the old ‘night soil’ man) were ‘dirty’, and that was just ridiculous, and we should just forget anything people like that said.

Less than ten kilometres from our farm was a hall at Myall Creek, where our parents played social tennis. There was a set of old swings, stands of willow and pepper trees, and the shallows of Myall Creek itself.

Sometime before I turned seven, I can recall mum saying, in between tennis matches, that a group of Aboriginal people had been herded over a nearby cliff by white settlers, long ago.

The image of those people being forced to fall to their deaths stayed with me. It was translated into a recurring dream in which my family led me up the steep gorge beside Myall Creek, and flung me off. When I saw my small body spinning down in the air, I was black-skinned. Back in my body, I grabbed at whatever I could find to stop my fall, but the bright green boughs of orange trees were so slippery I could get no grip. As I hit the ground, I woke up.

Seven years after leaving Inverell, in the wake of my parent’s divorce, mum’s re-telling of the story of the Myall Creek Massacre came back to me in the form of inspiration for what I believe was my second short story, now unfortunately lost.

I recall the scope of what I wanted to examine in words was quite weighty. Having learned that Australian artist Tom Roberts visited Inverell and painted in the region, I put myself (by then a burgeoning artist in my own right) into the story of a young visiting artist obsessed with a local farmer’s daughter, Erica. In the opening scene, he observed her lovingly from a distance while painting at Myall Creek, as she helped local Aboriginal people collect water for their camp site. When the massacre happened, Erica was caught-up in events beyond her imagining, slaughtered at the hands of men who had no sympathy for Aboriginal people, or any farmer’s daughters who spent time with them. My painter included Erica in his picture of the massacre, and was run out-of-town by the locals.

Not a bad set-up, in hindsight. No attempt at writing in the voice of an Aboriginal person (which Thomas Keneally said he regrets doing in his 1972 novel The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith). My projection of the emotional impact of the massacre onto Europeans is typical of a great disconnect, however. It continues to this day in some Australian writing (the last time I noticed it was in Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 production of his screenplay collaboration Australia in which Anglo-Australian characters are responsible for registering most of the impact of the Stolen Generations on the Aboriginal characters in the film).

I recall a temporary English teacher pulling me up on calling Aboriginal people ‘blacks’ in the mouths of my 19th century characters, as though I was overdoing the racism. I refused to change this (silently) on the grounds of verisimilitude. I also recall her trying to tell me that you should write ‘the carriage went passed the pub’ instead of ‘the carriage went past the pub’.

Here were some weighty lessons on my plate: that many people feel they have a greater knowledge of the past than others, that prejudice is dangerous to write about, and that critics will always try to find the smallest thing to pull down a good piece of work. I passed the most important lesson, however, about sticking to my guns creatively.

In 1987, during my Higher School Certificate exams, I shirked all last-minute study (I didn’t need any by then… I’d been studying for two years’ solid because I didn’t have a life) and started writing a novel about the Myall Creek Massacre. We’d studied Tim Winton’s 1982 debut novel An Open Swimmer for two years, and the very real voice of the main character, Jerra, had prised my consciousness wide open.

CHILDHOOD LANDSCAPE Looking south from Dufty’s Lane towards Myall Creek, the typical rolling country of the region (Photo by Michael Burge).

Even my small amount of research revealed much more than mum’s evocation of events. Infamous for being the first time white settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people, the atmosphere of this 1838 massacre is laid bare in newspaper accounts and court records. The racism in the reporting is so extreme it’s almost laughable, making it ridiculous for my teacher to expect me to lessen the prejudiced vernacular of the characters in my story.

I enthusiastically embarked on a two-level narrative: small boy learning racism at country school, counterpointed with local historical massacre. No white girls to register the emotional truths, only the young station hands, witness to the bloody killing of innocent men, women and children. This fragment of my work also does not survive, written into the back of my studious notebooks, destroyed some time later in the upheavals to come.

The Myall Creek Massacre would come back into my life again, and I’d learn more about the truth and impact of the events, but not for a very long time.

Modernist Mansfield

My first short story was written sometime in 1985. I had fantastic English teachers at secondary school: Beatrice Mayer (year 7-10) and Yvonne Smith (year 11-12). Mrs Mayer introduced me to Shakespeare, and a host of Australian work, but one week she opened up a whole world of possibility to me in the form of Katherine Mansfield, and what were described as ‘unpleasant stories’ in which the characters and plot need not necessarily be ‘nice’. It was a Friday, and we read one of Mansfield’s excellent works. I cannot remember which, but the knowledge that she was from New Zealand, a ‘modernist’, and died young (of tuberculosis) was enough to evoke a host of romantic themes.

Our challenge was to write a whole short story with ‘unpleasant’ characters. I think we were given a week, but I walked home that day brimming with inspiration, and poured-out my story (alas, also now lost) that very evening, and re-wrote it over the following days. I also recall the pen I used, one of those new erasable-ink pens with a rubber end, handy for changes-of-mind and grammatical corrections.

I recall it was about a boy my age on his paper run, encountering his neighbours as he delivered the news, including an old woman and a dog, and a blind man. I think the penultimate scene was on a railway station, where despite the old man’s ‘unpleasantness’, he saves the boy’s life. Everything else is lost to my memory, apart from the 20 marks out of 20 I received in red ink after getting my exercise book back the next week.

It was a whole, living, breathing story. It had life. It was deemed worthy. It was the start of an exciting, creative time for a young man coming into his own.

Recalling these three brief years now, I am happy to remember that even my end of school exams didn’t get in the way of the act of sitting down and writing. I must have been doing something right, because my early work was attracting critics, and my inner critic wasn’t too strong. It’s also interesting to note that my work revolved around themes of prejudice.

Trouble was, nobody encouraged writing as a career choice. Mrs Smith made a fleeting (probably hopeful) mention that I ‘had a novel in me’, but amidst the ‘importance’ of university applications, and deciding what to do with my life, my inner world of writing was left far, far behind.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.